Starting Change: An Executive Guide

The fundamentals of starting a major transformation in six months

Great leaders know that things could be different—that their organizations could be more effective, more innovative, could reach new heights—if only they could get teams working together in a new way. But convincing others to do things differently is one of the most challenging (and fundamental) tasks a leader can take on. This guide breaks down what you should consider in the first six months to see traction in your organizational transformation.  

Why You Should Trust Us

In the last 10 years, we’ve led wide-scale transformations at over 300 organizations ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies, in dozens of industries and divisions, affecting thousands of employees. As a result, we’ve seen just about every permutation of change and understand how people react to and resist new ways of working.

The First 3 Months: Direction and Direct Reports

No one believes more strongly than we do in the importance of making change rather than talking about it—but you’ll also hear us say, “Slow down to speed up.” Focus your first 90 days on building the foundations for change, and you’ll be shocked at how change accelerates exponentially afterwards.

Personally acknowledge the work ahead. Be clear with yourself about what you’re signing up for and how much effort it will require. What’s your mission? How urgent is it, and how complex is the task? What does success and partial success look like? How long are you willing to commit? 

Evaluate how you should approach change as a leader. If you’re new to the role or the organization, don’t assume you know what the team needs. Listen to others to learn what they would want to try first—they may have good ideas and you’ll win friends by showing you’re an open-minded leader. 

On the other hand, if you’ve been in the role or organization for some time, don’t do ANOTHER round of fact-finding and surveying—you’ll just increase cynicism that nothing will change. If you know what the problem is, move quickly into action. Again, be willing to try what people have already suggested, rather than assuming you have a better solution.

Pro Tip: In 10 years, we’ve never shared information from a discovery round that surprised existing leadership. They already know what the problems are, they just don’t know how to make change. 

Understand where power lies within your organization and what it wants. Change is inherently political. You need a thorough understanding of who influences what, and what motivates them. How will your initiatives serve their needs? Who is likely to oppose your efforts, and why? Take the time to map out key influencers and decision makers, and what they want, both in general and in regards to the change you’re trying to bring about.

Get a senior sponsor. Seek out a more powerful stakeholder to serve as a sponsor. They can help you identify and assess political situations you may not be aware of, advocate for resources and attention, and serve as ambassadors to other high-level leaders. And if you’re making changes that conflict with the CEO or Board’s desires? You’d better have a powerful, united coalition from across the organization. 

Find your team. When your change inevitably meets resistance, you’re going to want the right people on your side: people who share a similar pain point, who have successfully led a change before, and who have their finger on the pulse of the organization. This is your change vanguard. Use them as a sounding board before trying something out, and be ready to lean on each other when things get hard.

Bring your team together to kick off the work. People are more committed to change when they have some hand in shaping it, rather than feeling change is being done to them. Invite them to co-create the vision for the future and highlight how they’ll benefit. Again, we like using “From-To” Statements, which define the current state of the organization, and how it needs to change, focusing on specific behaviors. This is also a good time to determine who will be responsible for what, and to establish norms and rhythms for the team to adhere to, like a weekly standup. 

Start politicking (if you haven’t already). Figure out who is on your side, who you can win over, who you can safely ignore, and who you’ll have to maneuver. Don’t like politics? Unfortunately, it’s unavoidable: if you don’t advocate for what you want, someone else will to get what they want. Ask for help and learn to manage your discomfort.

The Second 3 Months: Testing and Learning

Communicate, but DON’T oversell. Once you have a plan, share it with the wider team or organization. Focus on why this change needs to happen, how it will benefit them, and what you need from them at this time. Remember that while you are already excited about the promise of a better future and have a hand in shaping it, not everyone will share your enthusiasm. In fact, it’s likely that they’ve heard promises like this before, so they may be justifiably skeptical. So don’t try to force them to adopt a positive attitude—instead, concentrate on making real change, and more likely than not, they’ll come around. 

Prepare for roadblocks. Resistance and mistakes will happen, so you may as well be ready. Do a pre-mortem to figure out what might get in the way of change, and either take steps to avoid it, or come up with a plan to address it when it does happen. Then, when the plan does goes awry, remember it’s just a bump along the road, not a permanent setback.

Pro Tip: Review the 25 Change Barriers you can expect to encounter while making change. 

Score some quick wins. People are more motivated to change when they see change already happening. So whenever possible, start with changes that can be quickly implemented, easily reversed, and that even if they fail completely, will have limited negative impact on the organization. This involves:

  • Bringing together a few members of your Change Team to decide which “From-To” statement to start with. 
  • Inviting a few new people into the change who are enthusiastic about that particular “From-To” shift, and brainstorming potential behavioral changes which might influence this outcome. (This might be a good opportunity to draw from the list of ideas you collected during your listening tour in the first 90 days.) 
  • Tasking the team with experimenting with those behaviors within the organization to see its impact. Aim to test something every two weeks—every week is better—to hone in on what works best for the organization.

Prioritize speed and learning. Teams made of high-achievers have a tendency to want to perfect everything, but when you’re experimenting, that takes too much time and energy. Instead, get them used to sharing rough drafts and push them to share before they feel ready. When something does go wrong, rebrand failure as learning and share it so everyone gets smarter, rather than hiding it away. Remember: if you punish a team for trying and failing, they won’t try again.

Align on what works. As you experiment, come together regularly as a team to review the results and determine the best way to iterate and improve. Once you’ve found something that feels like it’s a good fit for the organization, make sure that you and your team are aligned about what’s working and why, so that you’re ready to scale the most impactful changes.  

Promote your results. This is the time to kick your propaganda machine into high gear. Constantly talk about the changes you’re making with specific examples—and more importantly, make sure teams are talking about what they’re doing. People can’t argue that a change can’t be adopted here when Steven in Supply has already done it.

Keep politicking. Put your team first, but make sure you’re keeping the right people on your side.

Get Started

To be clear, it takes approximately 18 months to 3 years to fully implement lasting transformation within an organization. Our approach serves to kickstart change and prove it’s possible, but more importantly, it gives teams the skills to manage ongoing and continuous change. The reality is that today’s business environment is dynamic and uncertain—the only way for teams to adapt without burning out is to learn to get better at change. The good news is that NOBL can help. Reach out to learn how.

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Starting Change: An Executive Guide
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